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A Picky Eater Grows Up

The year is 1974.  My family is making the annual pilgrimage from Illinois to Florida in our trusty Oldsmobile, Mom and Dad chain-smoking in the front while my brother and I fight for prime real estate in the back seat.  We finally arrive in Georgia, and I put my family through a familiar scenario:

We pull up to the drive-through window of McDonald’s.  My dad calls out the orders, three variations of hamburgers-with-everything plus French fries and drinks.  Then he adds, “And one plain hamburger.”

My brother groans and slumps back.  My mom taps her nails on the window trim.  The inevitable request comes.  “Uh, sir, can you pull over and wait?”

This was no ‘have it your way’ situation.  My plain hamburger meant that we waited an extra 10 or 15 minutes for it to be cooked and slapped between a bun sans all the junk that turned my stomach.

I’m sure many people can tell tales of their childhood food aversions.  If you’re a parent, you probably deal with this sort of thing from your own children.  What we often don’t talk about, though, is when this pickiness extends into adulthood.

I’m 51 years old, and I still don’t eat salad (or raw vegetables of any kind).  If you try to sneak Parmesan cheese into my food, I will smell it and push it aside.  I’ve come a long way, though.  Mushrooms, fennel, balsamic vinegar and Havarti cheese all now have a place in my life.  It was a long, nose-wrinkling process, however, and some foods still didn’t make the cut (sorry Gruyère – you just smell too nasty).

I was lucky enough to visit France in my late 20s.  After days spent wandering Versailles, visiting the Eiffel Tower, and watching artists at work in Montmartre, I was often famished.  I am ashamed to admit that the restaurant that most frequently got my business was none other than McDonald’s.  I was thrilled to tuck into an order of chicken nuggets with a side order of barbecue sauce.  Some days it was all I ate, after a breakfast of coffee and toast.

In front of Notre Dame Cathedral, most likely thinking of the chicken nuggets I'd eat that night - 1988

In front of Notre Dame Cathedral, 1988 – most likely thinking of the Mickey D’s I’d eat that night

I don’t know what it’s like now, but Paris in 1988 was a challenge for someone who didn’t speak French.  Add a hearing loss and inherent shyness to that, and ordering from a restaurant was fraught with peril.  After ordering a pizza that inexplicably arrived at the table with a topping of runny eggs, I avoided cafes and looked for the golden arches.

Things started changing for me around the time I had my cochlear implant surgery in 2008.  It’s fairly common for the nerves that control taste to be damaged during surgery, and I was not spared.  For about a year and a half, things like bread, cookies and cake had a strange, spongy texture and no flavor.  Water was oily; most flavors were flat.  The front center area of my tongue was most affected, so I tried to skip that area and quickly get the food to the back of my tongue.  I drank beverages through a straw.

I found that adding heat and spice livened up some of the dead flavors, so for the first time in my life I gravitated toward hot, spicy foods.  (I kept that preference once my taste buds were back to normal.)  While I was busy looking for ways to burn some life into my taste buds, we also started watching more cooking shows on TV.  I learned how to prepare and cook things I’d never even heard of before, like jicama.  I discovered Ruth Reichl’s books, and found myself curious about some of the more exotic dishes she described.

As I slowly started trying things that were new to me (and enjoying most of them), I decided to really push myself out of my comfort zone.  I signed up to become a recipe tester for Cook’s Illustrated, with the caveat that I had to try recipes with at least one new ingredient.  Testing a recipe means I have to follow everything to the letter – the ingredients, cooking method, pan size, and so on.  Instead of, say, substituting Greek yogurt for sour cream, I have to use exactly what the recipe calls for.

I admit that just last year I sat in a restaurant, ordered a dish that had pasta salad on the side (something I’ve never eaten because I hate mayonnaise), and told myself that if my kids could follow the ‘just take one bite and try it’ rule, then so could I.  It was made with aioli, which I’d never had but assumed tasted like mayonnaise.  For whatever reason, I loved it.  Maybe I like aioli better than mayonnaise, or maybe aioli tastes nothing like mayo, or maybe I actually don’t mind mayo anymore.  Who knows.  But I tried it!

So I’ve come a long way, food-wise.  In all honesty, I still wouldn’t order a burger with everything on it.  But ordering it plain wouldn’t even cross my mind these days.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Testing Recipes

I’ve mentioned before that we test recipes for Cook’s Illustrated.  It’s not as glamorous as it sounds – totally voluntary, no payment or glory or anything.  I just thought it sounded like fun; it would give me a chance to maybe learn some new cooking techniques and try some new ingredients, since I’m trying to reform my picky-eating ways.

It was fairly easy to join; I just watched their Twitter feed until they announced they were looking for new recipe testers, and I applied via the link they provided.  Within a couple days they were welcoming me to the team.

Every now and then, they send me an email with a recipe to test.  There’s a link to a survey that you fill out after you test the recipe, as well as a link to the recipe itself.  They ask that you not share the recipe when it’s in the testing phase, although once it’s been published you can share as long as you give them credit.  They ask you not to test the recipe if it’s something you normally wouldn’t like (and I avoid anything with fish, since Dave is allergic to it).  They give you a deadline, usually 2 or 3 weeks away, and ask that you test the recipe and fill out the survey before that date.

So that’s how it works.  Pretty simple!  So far I’ve probably tested 2/3 of the recipes they send me.  I learned the hard way to take a pass on recipes that are loaded with unusual ingredients.  At first I was drawn to them, since one of my goals is to broaden my culinary horizons.  After a couple recipes that cost me around $20 in ingredients that are now languishing in my pantry, I’m now more discerning in the recipes I test.

Sometimes the ingredients are new-to-me but not expensive and/or hard to find, like the bean dip that used pink beans.  I’d never heard of them, but there they were, cheap and easy to find, right there with the canned pinto and navy beans.  (The recipe also called for frozen lima beans, which I HATE; they were great in the dip (mashed up, thankfully) but the rest of the bag hung out in the freezer until The Great Derecho/Almost-Four-Day Power Outage/Heatwave of 2012, when we lost everything in our fridge and freezer.  I was not sad to see them go.)

Usually what happens is the recipe will call for a miniscule amount of a really expensive ingredient that you can only get in a big size.  Or a miniscule amount of an ingredient that I can’t figure out what to use in anything else.  Perfect example:  I have a bag of cracked wheat, sitting in my pantry for over a year, from a really horrible vegetarian chili that we tested.  The chili was so bad that I’m scared to even look up ways to use cracked wheat in other recipes.

Sometimes I just can’t find the ingredient they’re calling for.  Off the top of my head, I can remember this happening with a specific type of vinegar and also French green lentils.  We shop at an international produce/grocery store that has just about everything, but I could not find either of those things.  I’m not willing to drive 40 minutes to Whole Foods, so I crossed those recipes off my list.

Normally I would just substitute that ingredient for something similar that I could get my hands on.  When I’m testing a recipe, though, I follow it religiously:  no ingredient substitutions; I time all the steps to see if they match what the recipe says; and I make sure the pans and skillets and such are all the same size and type called for in the recipe.  (Case in point:  I just got a cheese soufflé recipe to test that I had to pass on because we don’t have a soufflé pan.  Plus, the cheeses were Parmesan and Gruyere, and I absolutely detest both of them.)

Usually we like the recipes we test, and we’ve kept quite a few.  I tested an amazing filled peanut butter cookie and delicious Italian Florentine cookie, the aforementioned bean dip, pan roasted potatoes, berry trifle, steak and, oh, the cauliflower soup with little vinegar-soaked roasted cauliflower pieces as a garnish.  I really went out on a limb with that one, because although I’m fine with vinegar as an ingredient, I don’t eat it ‘raw’ (as in a salad dressing, for example).  The smell just gags me, and I can’t get past it.  But I really wanted to do the whole recipe, including the garnish, so I started out with just two little florets floating on top of my soup.  The vinegar smell was overpowering and I was afraid it would make me hate the soup, so I ate the florets first to get them out of the way.  And I loved them!  (And went back for more).  I couldn’t believe it.  Why does vinegar have to smell so bad?!  I would probably eat it more if it smelled better.

We tested a few recipes that were good but just such a hassle that we would never make them again.  One of those was for turkey burgers, which required us to buy a turkey leg and cut it into pieces and then put them in the food processor with butter to make the ‘ground turkey.’  The butter completely coated the food processor, it took Dave 30-45 minutes to cut up the damn turkey leg, and the other ingredients I had to mix in just didn’t want to mix – the butter repelled them.  We finally got the burgers made and they were delicious, but I had to report that I’d never make it again (and why).

By the way, when that recipe finally got published, it was nothing like the recipe I tested.  I noticed right away that the butter was gone (I can’t remember what they ended up using in the final recipe, maybe gelatin).  I don’t always see the final, published version of the recipes I test, but all of the ones I’ve seen have been changed in some way from the version that I had.  Even the ones that I gave rave reviews – which makes me wonder if other people complained about things that I thought were perfectly yummy.

Now, some of these recipes are duds.  It happens rarely, but for some reason, the vegetarian recipes I’ve tested have not been good.  It seems like they really want to make it seem NOT vegetarian (the cracked wheat was supposed to simulate the mouthfeel of ground beef, for instance) and it ends up being too convoluted.  After we worked all afternoon on the vegetarian chili recipe (and had a huge vat of it to show for our efforts), Dave took one taste, made a face and spit in the garbage.  I tasted it and thought it was pretty icky but not necessarily inedible.  Dave, however, was grievously offended…and he’s not even the picky eater in the family!  He’s like Mikey…he’ll eat anything.  We decided to toss it; there was no way it was all going to be eaten.

And then a couple nights ago, I tested a vegetarian bean enchilada recipe.  We have a couple of bean burrito recipes that we really like, so I thought it sounded promising.  I showed the recipe to Dave, and he immediately agreed that we should test it; he especially liked the ‘mole-type sauce’ that we were going to make to go with it, since he’s never had mole sauce.  (Neither have I.)

I should have known, just by reading the ingredients and the recipe steps, that I wasn’t going to like it.  There were some unusual ingredients that we don’t normally keep on hand (pumpkin seeds, guajillo chiles, canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce) but that didn’t deter me because I can think of lots of other things I would use those (leftover) ingredients in.  Mainly the enchilada consisted of the sauce (pureed smooth in a blender) and a can of pinto beans.  There was nothing else inside – no fresh veggies, no cheese (other than what was blended into the sauce).  As we cooked the beans and sauce together, most of the beans smushed and it was just a brown puree-type filling with no other texture.  Because of the bittersweet chocolate in the sauce, it was an unappealing dark brown color and it truly looked like we were smearing the contents of a baby diaper on the corn tortillas.  But we kept on, following the recipe exactly, baking the enchiladas in a bath of the nasty brown sauce.  We pulled them out and topped them with a chopped scallion from our garden (finally, a fresh vegetable, and some COLOR!) and some crumbled queso fresco, which was a new cheese for both of us.  (We loved it, thankfully – this was one good outcome from the recipe, since we now have a new cheese to enjoy.)

We sat down to eat, and I wasn’t optimistic but I tried to hide it.  I jokingly said, “Hopefully they’ll taste better than they look!”  I took a bite, chewed, and contemplated the flavor:  muddy and murky were the two words that came to mind.  There was no texture (beyond a slight crunch from the ends of the corn tortilla, although most of it was soggy from the sauce on top and bottom).  The flavor was bitter and just flat-out horrible.  I looked at Dave and said, “You try it.  If you like them, I’ll finish mine.  But otherwise I’m going to recommend that we order a pizza for dinner.”

Dave took a bite and started chewing.  And chewing.  And chewing.  After he finally swallowed that bite with a big gulp, he said, “Um, yeah…let’s order a pizza.  These are terrible.”

It was a wasted hour in the kitchen, meticulously testing each step of this recipe, but that’s what we signed up for so we were just bemused.  I gave this recipe the worst review I’ve ever bestowed, and recommended that they ditch the sauce altogether and just use fresh vegetables with the beans.  (Of course, that makes it a burrito and not an enchilada, but whew, the sauce was bad!)  I’m kind of hoping I get to see the final recipe when it’s published; I’d love to see if there are big changes.  I have to wonder if I’m the only one who had such a bad result.

Now I’m eyeing the zucchini lining my counter, thanks to our bountiful garden.  Hopefully they’ll be sending some tester zucchini recipes my way soon…

How I Learned to Stop Ordering and Love to Cook

I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I wasn’t always that good at it.  I was enthusiastic, yes, but I didn’t have enough practice or years of tasting behind me.  I cooked here and there (mainly sweets) when I lived at home, and I was just shy of 21 when I got married the first time.  I was still a very picky eater; corn and green beans were the only vegetables I didn’t consider to be suspicious.

I copied some recipes from my mom and had a few things I made regularly for dinner.  The first cookbook I remember buying was The Frugal Gourmet – I liked the word ‘frugal’ in the title.  I learned how to make a decent Chicken Marsala and how to make chicken and beef stock.  I followed recipes precisely.

For all those years, cooking was just a thing I did – I was working full time and didn’t feel like experimenting or devoting a lot of time to cooking once I got home.  Then the kids came along, and dinner became an afterthought.  Once I became a single mom, working full time, dinner for me was always after the kids were fed and in bed, and it often reflected my exhaustion – usually a bowl of cereal or soup.

It wasn’t until the kids grew older, I was remarried and working from home that I started getting interested in food beyond what I absolutely needed to do to keep my family nourished.  I have to give some credit to food blogs and cooking shows – I was introduced to so many ingredients I’d never heard of or never thought to cook with.  Things like fennel, jicama, leeks, kale…and I have to sheepishly admit that it wasn’t until just a couple years ago that I cooked with fresh mushrooms, broccoli, squash or cauliflower.  (I told you I was picky!)  The internet filled in when I wasn’t sure how to chop or prepare a certain vegetable.  (Bok choy, I’m looking at you.)

I can’t tell you how many nights I was prepared to make a certain meal and then realized I was missing just one crucial ingredient.  Those were the nights we ended up ordering takeout.  (A local pasta/pizza place kept us fed for a few very busy years in the early days of the candle business.  They’ve since gone out of business, probably because we stopped ordering from them when I started cooking more.)  There were also nights I planned on making something that I just couldn’t even consider cooking when the day rolled around, usually because it was just too hot to cook.

We were starting to order out just a little too much for my comfort, and I was getting frustrated by the many times my plans to cook were thwarted by missing ingredients.  I did get more creative, learning what I could and couldn’t substitute…but sometimes you just NEED that item and nothing else will do.  So I decided it was time to get more organized.

What has saved my sanity over the past few years, helped our budget and kept me from recipe burnout and the What the heck should I make for dinner tonight? conundrum is this:  A spreadsheet of menus.  It took me maybe 30 minutes to initially put together.  I sat down with my cookbook and went through all the recipes I knew my family liked.  I made sections on the spreadsheet for Beef, Chicken, Grill, Soup, Pasta, and Other.  In each section I typed in the names of the recipes that used that main ingredient.  (‘Other’ has things like homemade pizza, vegetarian dishes, grilled cheese, breakfast for dinner.)  To the left of the recipes, I have the days of the week listed, Monday through Sunday, and a space next to each day where I type in the recipe I’m planning to make.

To plan menus, I open the spreadsheet and I open the weather forecast in my browser.  I take a look at the temperatures coming up and plan my weekly menu accordingly.  I also have a tab in that spreadsheet that lists all the extra things I have in my freezer – any veggies, meat, etc. that I already have, so I know what I have on hand to work with.  If it’s going to be warm but not warm enough to have the A/C on, I pick something that we can cook on the grill, in the slow cooker or oven…basically anything except the gas stovetop, which heats our house up like a bonfire.  If it’s going to be really cold, I plug in something warm and hearty like chili, beef stew or soup.  I alternate so we aren’t eating chicken three days in a row, and so that at least two or three days are meat-free.  Once I nail down the menu for the week, I type a shopping list in another tab of the spreadsheet.  By now I have a lot of my recipes memorized, but if not, I reference the recipe and check my cabinets/fridge to make sure I have what I need.  Anything missing goes on the shopping list, along with any staples we’re getting low on.

Since I’ve started this, I almost never have a night when I either don’t feel like cooking or can’t make what I planned.  I get those meals set ahead of time and don’t have to think about what to make for dinner on a daily basis.  The most I might do is switch some meals around if the weather changes drastically or we have something planned that’s going to prevent me from having the time to cook.  If I know we have a busy afternoon planned, I’ll plug in a crockpot recipe so I can get dinner started in the morning before we go out.  I always have the ingredients I need on hand, and I don’t end up with three bottles of vanilla because I forgot I already had some in the pantry.  (Not anymore, anyway.)

If things start getting boring, I check around on my favorite cooking/recipe sites and add some new recipes to the mix.  In my quest to try more vegetables and ingredients I’ve never cooked with before, I’ve come across some recipes that are now family favorites.  I also signed up to test recipes for Cooks Illustrated, as a way to make myself try new things and practice new cooking techniques.

A big part of what makes cooking so fun is the appreciation of my family.  The kids aren’t living at home now but when they did, they never hesitated to rave about a meal they liked (and they still do this when they’re here for dinner).  It makes me feel good when they request certain meals; I know now that they have fond memories of mom’s cooking, and that they look forward to the things I make.  Dave is my biggest fan, really.  He will just stop eating, look at me and say, “This is AMAZING.”  He’ll rave about the flavor or the meal in general.  Positive reinforcement really works…it’s so much more fun to cook for someone who absolutely appreciates it and lets me know.

I know his praise is genuine because he doesn’t hesitate to tell me when he doesn’t like something; he would never lie and tell me something was tasty just to keep from hurting my feelings.  I always warn him when we’re trying a new recipe, “Tell me the truth now, because if you like it then it’s going in the repertoire and you’ll be eating it again!”  In other words, if you secretly hate it, you’re going to be stuck eating it again in the future unless you speak up.

I think the biggest complaint I hear from friends and family who don’t like to cook is doing the dishes that it creates.  For whatever reason, doing dishes just doesn’t bother me.  I find it kind of relaxing.  I tend to clean as I go, and Dave is almost always there with me in the kitchen (he’s a great sous-chef) so between the two of us, we have most of the dishes cleaned up before we even sit down to eat.  Sometimes we do the whole ‘whoever doesn’t cook is the one who does the dishes’ thing, but since we generally work together on a meal, we work together on doing dishes too.

We don’t always eat fancy, but we do always eat good and yummy.  Tonight it’s just homemade sloppy joes (I used to use Manwich until I found a simple, delicious recipe that puts it to shame) with potato wedges roasted in the oven.  In the summer, we’ll be eating zucchini and tomatoes in almost everything, as long as our plants thrive.  Some days we just throw together a scramble (eggs, diced potatoes, sweet peppers, onions, maybe mushrooms) and call it dinner.  Sometimes it’s lasagna – something that seems so fancy but is really very simple to put together.  For all of it, though, the key for me is organization.  I can’t make that lasagna if there’s no ricotta cheese in the fridge, and the scramble isn’t possible without eggs.

If spreadsheets aren’t your thing, or you just aren’t that into meal planning, I can highly recommend finding a recipe site that lets you search by ingredients.  (I know my favorite site, Allrecipes, has this feature, and I’m sure there are others out there too.)  If you’re feeling like having a chicken dish with a few key ingredients, you just plug those in and you’ll get a bunch of recipes to choose from.  Anything to make dinner time easier, right?

By the way, I found the homemade sloppy joe recipe because I didn’t have Manwich on hand…so sometimes it works out well when an ingredient is missing!

The Runny Egg Yolk Experiment

“You know, we really should eat this bread today.  I made it a while ago.”  Dave pulled the bread keeper towards him and brandished the loaf in my direction.  There wasn’t much left, maybe one-fourth, but he was right – it had been sitting there for a while.

“French toast?  Um…maybe Toad in the Hole?”

Before he finished speaking, I was waving my hands at him in excitement.  “How did you know I was going to say that?!  Oh my God, I was totally going to suggest that!”  The weird thing is, we’ve never ever had Toad in the Hole for breakfast (or Egg in the Hole, or whatever else it’s called – where you cut a hole out of the middle of a piece of bread, warm some butter in a skillet, then crack an egg into the hole in the bread and let it cook on both sides).  Dave has talked about it before, so I assumed it was something he’s eaten in the past, and I’ve seen my mom make it (and seen it featured on Pioneer Woman’s cooking page).  But I’ve never had it in my life, and it was just so strange that we both happened to be thinking of it this morning.

Turns out that Dave has never made (or eaten) it either, which kind of shocked me.  It just totally seems like the kind of thing he would eat.  So I glanced quickly at Pioneer Woman’s page to make sure we had the right idea, we grabbed the biscuit cutter to cut the holes, and we had enough bread for me to have one slice and Dave to have two.  Then we discussed strategy.

“Now, I want you to cook mine long enough so the yolk isn’t runny.  Just leave it so that it cooks all the way through,” I instructed.  I’ve always been completely grossed out by a runny yolk.  Partly because it just looks like an uncooked egg, which makes me think salmonella.  Partly because the texture thing is just icky…you have this solid section and then a totally liquid section and ewww.  Dave knows this is one of my food quirks so he wasn’t surprised by my request.  He regularly makes fried eggs with runny yolk for himself and he knows if he’s making me an egg, I like it cooked all the way through.

He used the cast iron skillet which can be tricky temperature-wise – it really holds the heat once it gets hot and it’s easy to overcook things if you don’t turn the flame way down.  He started my bread and then cracked in the egg; I added some salt and pepper to the top and also tossed my circle of bread into the pan because I wanted it toasted too.  Dave shook his head at my ‘goofiness’ and then went to flip over my toast circle.  It was already dark brown on the one side, so he flipped my Toad in the Hole and started cursing because he thought it was overcooked.

He turned down the flame and kept cooking until things were starting to get a little smoky.  He was sure he’d burnt the second side (he didn’t) and started offering to make me another one, but I reassured him that it was fine.  It’s kind of like when you make that first pancake and it takes a while to get that groove going between a little too brown/burnt and just right.

So we sat down to eat, and as I cut into the middle of my egg, the yolk started oozing out.  It wasn’t like a gushing river, it was kind of thick, but it was definitely not set.  “Hey look, I have a runny yolk!”  I held up my plate for Dave to see.  I could see the look on his face; he thought I was going to start freaking out, and he was getting ready to apologize and say he’d make me another.  Before he could speak, I added, “I’m kind of excited…I’m going to try it!”

We watch a lot of cooking shows, and at some point almost all of them feature someone cutting into a poached egg and raving about the yolk as it runs all over the food it’s served with.  I’ve seen this enough times that it started to make me curious, wondering if I’ve been missing out on something amazing.  I wasn’t curious enough to deliberately make myself an egg with a runny yolk, but since I’d been accidentally presented with one I decided to make an adventure of it.

So I dipped my toast circle into the yolk, dragged it around and took a bite.  And it was good.  I mean, my eyes weren’t rolling up into my head in ecstasy, but I also wasn’t gagging and regretting my decision to be adventurous.  It was fine and pretty yummy, kind of like having a little gravy or something.  Not a gross, slimy texture the way I imagined it would be.  Not a super strong flavor, either – definitely nothing offensive.  I ate it all, happily, and gave Dave a high five over my “tried something new today” accomplishment.

I’m still a picky eater, but I’m slowly making advances.  On Mother’s Day we were at my mom’s for dinner, and she ordered a few pizzas.  Plain cheese for the kids; for the adults, she got one with half pepperoni and half sausage, and one with fresh spinach, mushrooms, Roma tomatoes and a mixture of mozzarella, Romano and cheddar cheese.  I had one piece from each of the ‘adult’ pizzas on my plate and my brother could not believe I was eating the spinach/mushroom/tomato pizza.  He’d been traumatized by my pickiness on family vacations, having to pull over and wait at Burger King or McDonald’s while they made me a plain hamburger because I wouldn’t eat one with anything other than ketchup.  (Actually, I still eat my hamburgers that way.)  The look on his face when I told him I actually like fresh tomato, spinach and mushrooms on my pizza (as well as onions, green peppers…pretty much anything but anchovies) was priceless!

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